The end of the whip, the thong of braided leather recoiled back, spraying dots of red into the air. The man with the whip in hand grunted, and stepped back. Sweat beaded on his forehead in the noonday sun. He was no longer a young man, but not yet old. His name was Joshua. He lacked a bride and held a black anger in his heart. He reared his arm back and struck out again.
The anger stretched down the length of the leather and into another man's skin, a man named Adam, ripping open new red stripes. This man was just a man, young and impatient. His bare back showed off his muscles hewn from the hard labor of clearing the land, chopping trees, digging out stumps, plowing without a horse, casting seed, and cutting crops. He pulled on the leather bindings that suspended his hands to the sapling oak on the common. Pain radiated across his back and he drank it in with pleasure. He smiled as the whip recoiled again.
"Two," said the Reverend Jones. He stood a few yards away, with his Bible clasped solemnly to his chest. The wide brim of his black hat obscured his eyes in shadow. His face was long and thin and drawn, clean-shaven but for a light halo of white stubble. He stood in front of the rest of the village inhabitants. They were mostly menfolk, dressed in black and drab gray. The womenfolk were few. Of those that came out to the frontier, many died in the childbed. Only the truly hardy or truly lucky were left, along with their girls of fifteen or younger who were not yet married off. The girls looked towards Adam's body with sadness, admiration, and some degree of fanciful longing.
Joshua reared back again and let the whip loose. The anger crackled along the dried out leather, pushing and pulling out towards the man tied to the tree. The whip landed, and the man soaked it in. There was no pain, since he did not let it be painful. He grinned more broadly.
"Three," said Reverend Jones.
A young woman cried out in the crowd. She was herself bound at the wrists, and held by two burly men, her brothers. Her name was Temperance.
"Again," said Reverend Jones.
Joshua glanced over at the woman. Her face was wet with tears and contorted in pain.
"Again," said Reverend Jones with impatience.
Joshua reared back and let the whip fly. Temperance screamed out. Adam absorbed the pleasure of the lash, but stopped smiling.
"Four," said Reverend Jones.
Joshua stepped back, and wiped his brow. He looked again at the crowd.
"I can't," he said, in a whisper.
"What?" asked Reverend Jones.
"I can't," said Joshua, in a marginally louder voice.
"You can, and you will," said Reverend Jones. Joshua tried to find the Reverend's eyes, but discovered only black. He turned and flung the whip around. It leapt out and only grazed Adam's back.
"That does not count," said the Reverend. "Do it again."
Joshua, let his arm fall limp to his side, the whip de-animated. He turned his head down and started at his muddy buckle shoes. The Reverend Jones took off his black jacket, and unbuttoned his black vest. He rolled up his sleeves, and marched up to Joshua. He grabbed the whip from his hand, and glaring from beneath the veil of shadow cast by the brim of his hat, he pushed Joshua aside. He swung back and curled the whip out with a well-practiced snap.
It wasn't anger that traveled down the length of the whip but a hot desire for order and obedience. It felt different to Adam. No pain exactly, nothing that could be converted to pleasure so easily. The whip burned with a white heat; it was like a shove, not a punch. He did not smile.
As soon as the whip was back the Reverend lashed out again.
"Five." Snap. "Six." Snap. "Seven..."
The Reverend rapidly counted to twenty. Temperance slipped to the ground, and muddied the front of her gray woolen dress. Her brothers pulled her up, and she turned and buried her face in her younger brother's shoulder. He shoved her off and held the back of her head, forcing her to watch the whipping. Adam's back was raw and dripping with blood. The marks criss-crossed and were already welting up.
Finally the Reverend stood up straight and coiled up the whip, being careful not to touch the bloody end of it. He threw it to Joshua, who caught it next to his chest. The whip left a wide red circle on his shirt.
"Cut him down," said the Reverend. "Put him in the stocks. And tie her to the tree."
"Please, no," pleaded Temperance.
"Do not cry, girl. You're punishment is mild. You will not be whipped. We are fair-minded here."
Her brothers tied her to the tree as she watched Joshua put Adam in the stocks on the other side of the common. They faced one another.
"Two days ought to do it," said the Reverend. "Now everyone back to the harvest."
The crowd slowly dissipated. Some of the girls walked the long way across the common so they could smile at Adam and silently show there admiration of his fortitude in the face of the law. He smiled back at each one of them.
As the day wore on, he watched Temperance crying, slumped down at the base of the tree. He would not be able to speak to her without increasing the punishment for them both. After an hour she stopped, and just looked at the muddy grass around her. His back stung, and now began to ache as he was hunched over, with neck an wrists in the grip of the stocks.
Joshua stood by the door of the church, watching them both for a time. Finally his walked across the common towards Adam. He bent down, laying a hand broadly and heavily across Adam's back.
"Why did you do it?" he asked with a hiss. "You know she is mine!"
"She is not," said Adam. Joshua squeezed the blood-crusty flesh under his hand. Adam winced, but there was the anger again--a quick fix of pleasure.
"We were to be married, and now you've spoiled all that."
"She does not love you."
"That doesn't matter. I love her," said Joshua, transferring his hand to Adam's neck. He pulled up, jamming Adam into the wood of the stock. "I should kill you."
"She would be the woman making your food. Do you really want her to be unhappy with you? If you killed me, then you have set no example for her. She could just as easily kill you."
Joshua let go of Adam's neck, shoving it down, and pressing in on Adam's windpipe. Adam coughed and spat.
"I didn't mean to hurt you," he said when he caught his breath. "You should be loved. You should want to be loved."
"There's not a lot of choice," said Joshua. He walked away, careful not to look at Temperance. He went back to work in the field for the rest of the day.
As evening approached, an old man walked towards Adam. It was his father. Hunched over and limping from a stroke from some years previous, he stood by his son for a moment, then patted his head.
"I'm sorry father," said Adam. His father moaned in reply, unable to form words, but it was enough for Adam to understand what he meant. "I will always take care of you."
His father nodded, tears glazing his eyes. He looked over his son's crimson back and choked back a sob.
"I will be all right," said Adam. His father clasped Adam's hand with his good hand. Then he wandered back to their wattle house.
A light cold rain fell that night. The darkness was thick and black and quiet. Temperance whimpered. They both shivered. There was frost on the ground in the morning. Adam watched his breath form clouds in front of him. Before the village was up and outside, one of the village girls carried out a mug of hot tea. She let Adam drink first. He drank a big gulp of the warming liquid, then pleaded with the girl to give the rest to Temperance. She looked a little put out, but set out across the common and knelt beside Temperance. After a moment she unleashed a piercing scream and ran away.
Adam struggled in his bonds. He screamed out her name. The rest of the village stirred and came out of their houses, many of them still in their nightclothes. They untied her body from the tree, and brought it into the church. Adam struggled to see. Many people went to and from the church, but no one told him of her condition. Finally Joshua loped across the common. Wordlessly he unlatched Adam from the stocks.
His back was stiff, but as soon as he was free he ran towards the church. At the entrance he slowed to a stop. All eyes from within looked towards him unblinkingly. He father hobbled towards the doorway, and held out his hand, beckoning Adam in. He did so, and walked slowly down the aisle between the rough wooden pews.
Temperance was laid out in front of the alter, a shroud of linen covering her face. Adam knelt by her head. The Reverend stood by her feet. His hat was off, and steely eyes peered into Adam.
"I only kissed her hand," said Adam, looking down at the outline of her face.
The Reverend tightened his fingers around the spine of his Bible. The others in the church breathed in shallow breaths. Adam reached under the shroud and found her hand. he brought it out, and brought it to his lips.